|Paul and Jane|
Our couple recovery began the day we walked into our first RCA meeting, March 4, 1990. At that point, we had been married for eighteen years with three children. We had each begun our own individual recoveries in 1987. However, our relationship was floundering, and we felt emotionally divorced. Even though we had been trying to use many tools from our own individual recovery programs, from counseling, and from other support groups such as Marriage Encounter, the way was not clear.
We had each made a limited commitment to try working on our relationship one day at time, but hope for couple recovery was scary. Pain and despair were frequent companions, and yet we also had many good memories of times together to use as sources of strength. We could each admit that important parts of our story had begun long ago in our families-of-origin. What we had not realized was the extent of the damage from our family histories, and its impact on our relationship.
What we know today is that couple recovery does work. As we share our story with you, we owe much to the support of many loving people in RCA who made it possible to share with you today as a couple.
Jane 's Story
I'll never forget the night Paul came home from work and said he didn't know if he loved me anymore and wasn't sure he wanted to stay married. It was the day after a romantic weekend at a bed & breakfast, and I had planned a surprise fortieth birthday party with friends to coincide with our return. I thought we were really on our way to new growth, having begun our own individual recovery programs the previous year. My first reaction to his "bombshell" was to find a cure for my shock and pain-make love, go on a vacation, make a marriage enrichment weekend, anything to make the pain stop. The day before, I had given Paul a card that said, "Thanks for standing by me at this time in my life." I had no idea what was to lie ahead.
Through my 12-Step support groups (Adult Children of Alcoholics and Overeaters Anonymous), I had discovered that I used many illusions and defenses as protective walls to support a very fragile, lost, frightened and wounded inner child. My most powerful visual image of this child was a fallen little girl in the middle of an empty room with black menacing hallways surrounding her. This little child had surrendered, fallen, and could not pretend to be strong anymore. I was only just beginning exploring the depth of my emptiness. The frozen tears began to fall. How did the darkness begin?
As I was growing up in my family, long before I met Paul, patterns were developing which were filled with both healthy strengths and crippling deficits. Today I am grateful for the peace I have found through recovery. I have given myself permission to feel all my feelings, and accept that my parents did the best they could with the tools they had available to them.
My childhood was marked by contradictions. When I was born as the fifth of six children in my family, dysfunction was clouding our family life. Loyalty, family fun, family rituals, spirituality, support and achievement were important values. However, alcoholism and codependency were also insidious poisons.
It was difficult and painful for me to relate to stories of alcoholism in my early recovery because my father stopped drinking when I was young. However, I'll never forget the two years he laid on the couch, believing, or so I was told, that he thought he had cancer. It didn't make sense. Here he was a successful doctor; why couldn't he go get help like he told other people to do. I was constantly seeking a bond with my father, to earn his love, praise, and recognition, but my brothers were his favorites. My bond with my father was incredibly important to me, especially due to my mother's emotional illness. My mother was caring, loving, and devoted. She was also a codependent, affected by manic depression, and an eating disorder. Her life was marked by a series of "nervous breakdowns;" the second of which occurred immediately after my birth. My mother was sent home to stay with my grandmother for several months. As an infant, I was cared for by my aunt, who worked full-time, an alcoholic maid, and my father, who had withdrawn into his own world of alcohol and depression. When I was eight, I was left at home to be her caregiver during a "breakdown." It would be thirty years before I talked about that day, and its horrible memories. That night, I crept out of the house, went to my aunt's down the street, and begged to go to school the next day. She charged over to the house and confronted my father, but the damage was done. I had broken the family rule of "Don't Talk". I'll never forget the look on my father's face.
We all had nicknames. I was so proud I was named "Princess," and I did my best to live up to it. I was always placed between my brothers in the car, and told to be the "peacemaker." Later in childhood, I was devastated when my father changed my nickname to "Chatterbox." During those years, the TV, the newspaper, and what my brothers did wrong were the frequent focal points for my father. I became increasingly angry and frustrated, but had great difficulty sharing these feelings with anyone. I could never understand how the TV was more important than me. I retreated with isolation into a safe world that I could control.
During my teenage years, the whole family was "bottoming out." I received no formal sex education, which left me naturally confused and naive. When I was sexually abused by a man on a public bus, I was terrified and hurt, but trapped by my lack of healthy emotional skills. Mostly, I got my needs met through academic achievement, creative outlets, and helping others.
I had learned from my family that it was not OK to talk about feelings, especially anger, fear, loneliness, sadness. Family messages that were powerful for me included: "Trust only yourself; If you want something done right, do it yourself; Put on a happy face; and, If something doesn't work out right, look the other way." One family member had said to me: "The absolute worst thing that could ever happen is to feel depressed. I will never, never allow myself to be depressed." I began to believe that I could control all my feelings. I also believed that I could manipulate any situation and make it better. Later in life as adults, I remember talking with my sisters about anger, and the difficulty we all experienced when sharing that feeling. I also remembered making a promise to myself as a child that I would never ever lose my temper, scream, demean, or be sarcastic with anyone. My anger felt like a firecracker with a burning fuse, waiting to explode. Although progress was made in the family, the scars went deep. An important healing occurred when my father shared with me that he could never take a drink again, since he was afraid that it would kill him and destroy the entire family.
At the end of my sophomore year in college, I met Paul. Our early days together were filled with constant conversation, fun, and feelings of belonging. I remember the solemn promise we made to each other that we would do things "differently," and not make the same mistakes our parents did. I felt important and special to him. What I overlooked was the fact that he rarely talked about his family or his feelings.
Both of my parents are alcoholics and have been actively drinking since before I was born. They met at a "pub" in England during World War II. As it turned out, their meeting in a bar was to be prophetic, as alcoholism and the resulting consequences were to be a prominent theme for our entire family.
I am the oldest of six children, the "hero" of the family who always did everything right. On the surface I was the model child: good grades, never a behavior problem, well liked by friends and family. What my outward appearance betrayed was a lost child who had been emotionally abandoned at the age of fourteen months, when my sister was born to an overwhelmed mother who drank to forget her homesickness. Emotional trauma gave way to sexual trauma, as I was sexually abused by two teenage boys when I was four or five years old. I never dared tell my parents because "good boys" don't let things like that happen to them. The memories were buried for nearly forty years.
In grade school, I was quiet but studious. At home, the violent anger of my mother terrified me as I watched my brothers and sister run from her unpredictable attacks. My father was traveling all week and drinking all weekend. There was little help from relatives, although I did learn how to mix alcoholic drinks for my grandfather as I listened to his wonderful stories of World War I and early motor cars. Life was becoming more dangerous at home, so I learned to spend hours playing at a local park where a creek offered hours of solitude. It was here that I was sexually abused a second time by an older boy or teenager (memories are incomplete here). Even my sanctuaries were turning into war zones.
At the end of grade school, I began to consider entering a seminary to become a Catholic priest. At the time, I thought it was just another "wonderful" thing to do; as the Family Hero, I could make everyone very proud of my vocational choice. In retrospect, I was trying to get away from home as soon as possible in another effort to save my sanity. Get away from crazy parents and have salvation guaranteed. What a deal!
Just about the same time I entered the seminary, I also discovered that sex was a very powerful way to escape from my family and my own feelings. Pornographic books, "girlie" magazines, X-rated movies and erotic fantasy became my favorite diversions. There were dangers, of course, threats of damnation, burning in hell for all eternity, that sort of thing, but the power of sex for a fourteen-year-old makes hell sound like recess. I was hooked. For the next twenty-five years, obsessing, being compulsive, and feeling shamed around sex were to consume much of my available energy in life.
I (Paul) met Jane exactly five days after I had mustered the courage to leave the seminary at the end of my junior year of college. I make this point about the "five days after I left" because Jane would later defend herself in a teasing, yet fearful manner, lest someone accuse her of "stealing" a potential priest away from the Church. I had indeed left on my own to pursue "other interests" as I so formally indicated to the rector of the seminary. In truth, I had found out that leaving home didn't cure my spiritual and emotional hurts and sex couldn't fix them either. I had decided to try other people and the "R" word relationships, as the answer to the loneliness and depression that had marked my life for the first twenty-one years.
Jane and I met at a summer camp working with handicapped children. She first saw me performing in a small but fun rock band called the "Origin of the Species." I was drawn to her smile and her warm manner. She took my hand on a walk and I was in love. I hadn't been touched by a girl since playing Red Rover in third grade, but suddenly I knew what I had been missing during all those years of pre-celibacy: friendship, caring, fun, sharing with another person who cared, and closeness that was nurturing, not abusive. I had finally found a person I could trust.
Jane and I were married in 1971 and began our journey together. What we did well, we did very well. We played and had fun together. We talked, and created three beautiful children. We shared many common interests. We built on each other's strengths. However, our marriage began to unravel as the stresses of life crept in and the seeds planted in our families-of-origin came to bloom.
I really had no idea about how to do a healthy marriage, since all I ever saw at home was my mom's anger, my dad's avoidance, more anger, more avoidance...an endless circle of futility tempered with liberal amounts of alcohol. At first I tried to be close to Jane, but all I really knew how to do was act like we were on a date have a good time, be together for a couple of hours, don't get too serious, and maybe have sex at the end. What I didn't understand was how to talk about feelings, how to ask for help, how to be supportive, how to argue in a healthy way, or how to talk about my needs. I had all of the responsibilities of a husband, and later a father, but none of the tools to do the job.
I began to distance myself from Jane as I felt increasingly trapped, lonely, bored, frustrated and scared about the future. As I began to withdraw, many of my old escapes from childhood and adolescence began to re-emerge. Fantasy consumed much of my waking moments. I returned to school and became absorbed in a master's degree. Sexual acting out with myself and other women became more frequent. I was on a downward spiral and heading for destruction. Fortunately for me, my Higher Power intervened by finding me a job as a consultant for a chemical dependency treatment center. Although I am not an alcoholic or drug addict, I am addicted to sex, fantasy, unhealthy relationships and intellectualizing. My addictions began to control my life.
The more I (Jane ) tried to reach Paul, the more he withdrew. When Paul would try to reach me, I would be confused by what I saw as mixed messages. Our lovemaking had always been very special to me, and Paul made me feel important, unique, and special. As the years went by, though, I noticed that Paul seemed less interested. When I asked what we could do differently, he seemed confused and sad, but never really made any concrete suggestions. I often asked myself what was I doing wrong.
Despite our growing problems, the good times were always there, and our family life was very special. It was the contradictions that were bewildering. I would recoil from teasing and sarcasm or any form of anger, as I was playing out the scripts I had learned early in my life. Escapes were safe and frequent. Parenting, busyness, control, codependency, compulsive eating, and romantic fantasy novels were a big part of my coping. My bottom came at a time when we had a four-year-old daughter, we were both out of work, and I was eight months pregnant with a baby I was scared would have problems after the previous miscarriage. As my situation became more insane, so did my behavior. I began shoplifting. Fortunately, I was caught rather quickly, since it's hard to be sneaky when you are that pregnant. I really thought I had destroyed our marriage. Paul was surprisingly supportive, but still incredibly distant. I attributed it to my problems, graduate school and the loss of jobs. What I did not know at the time, and he didn't share, was that his behavior was just as insane as mine, since he was having an affair with another graduate student up until a week before our second baby was born.
A significant step in our growth occurred when we made a Marriage Encounter weekend. We joined an ongoing support group of other couples who were also encountered and began talking about feelings. That process opened the doors to deeper communication and sharing, but the addictions were still there.
As I (Paul) began working in a recovery-oriented environment, I gradually became aware of how much pain I was in and the impact of my abuse history on my personal life. Most importantly, though, I learned how to begin my healing process through the 12-Steps and recovery fellowships where everyone wanted to be free from their individual, family and relationship pains. For the first time in my life, I began to feel some sense of hope instead of despair, peace instead of fear. However, my relationship with Jane was still confused and dark. I began to wonder what "love" was, and if I had any left for her. I chose to begin sharing my pain with Jane the day after my surprise fortieth birthday party. The black crepe was more fitting than my friends ever knew.
During the summer of 1988, Paul introduced me (Jane) to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had known about them intellectually, but never embraced them on a personal level. During the next year, I continued to focus on my individual recovery by entering a codependency treatment program.
I grew as a person, letting go of the old tapes that had been strangling me, stifling our relationship, and Paul. My family-of-origin and the healing of my inner child were the primary focus. Later, Paul told me that he thought about sharing his sexual addiction with me that same night after the birthday party when he talked about his confusion and despair about love and our relationship. However, it had been recommended that it would be helpful for him to look at his motivation and at Step Nine. I believe accidents do not happen in recovery and that our Higher Power was definitely with us each Step of the way. If he had shared everything then, our course of recovery might definitely have been different. The pain would have been more devastating, and my own individual recovery would have been severely challenged even more. As I grew in recovery, the imagery of the fallen child surrounded by dark menacing hallways gradually transformed into a garden of trees. The child began to blossom under the shining light of the sun, a powerful spiritual image of my Higher Power. The circle of trees at first were still very closed, and only gradually were other people allowed to enter safely.
As we developed separate recovery networks, however, our coupleship grew further apart. It was an incredible relief when I decided to surrender our relationship to my Higher Power and accepted my powerlessness to fix anything. But what then? How were we to work through the resentments, barriers, and broken trust? At this point in our journey, Paul shared the full story. Shock, despair, anger, rage, confusion, and depression were feelings that I now allowed myself to feel. There was also insight and understanding of the overwhelming degree of pain that Paul had been experiencing in his secret addictive lifestyle, and his history of abuse. Our First Step as a couple now began anew. I committed to staying in the relationship one day at a time, to share my feelings, but also to use other resources for support systems to work through my rage and my co-addict issues. We turned our relationship over to the care of our Higher Power. It would only be through a power greater than us that trust could be rebuilt.
Couple therapy did much to help us sort out our most painful issues, but it was through the fellowship of RCA that the shame and isolation of two abused and lost children would finally begin to be healed. We walked into our first RCA meeting filled with couple shame, questioning if there would be a future for us together. Gradually, Step by Step, our sharing of experience, strength, and hope with other couples helped our trust to be healed. Participation in the "We Came To Believe" program also did wonders for our shame and couple pain.
Together, we experienced a spiritual awakening that showed that the "Promises" were working, and that Step Two was happening. On a guided imagery, separate, but together, we each experienced our inner child meeting our partner's inner child at the same lake and on the same rock in Colorado. They took us to the adults, us, and hand-in-hand, we stood together, embracing all that life has to offer us in recovery with our Higher Power, and with you.
As a direct result of our couple recovery, we were able to recommit ourselves to each other on our twentieth wedding anniversary, August 7, 1991. What we know now is that we have the tools and the support to use as a couple as we face the many challenges ahead. We know it is safe to share with the many people in RCA fellowships across the nation, and that we share a common dream: to grow in our commitment, communication, and caring as a couple, one day at a time.